E15 ethanol-blend gas sales threatened by label change

Source: By Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • Posted: Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Just as a 15% blend of ethanol in gasoline gains traction in the marketplace, a mandated label change at gas pumps threatens to slow sales of the fuel known as E15.

Effective this week, federal regulators say E15 must be labeled as a “Flex Fuel” in most areas of the country.

The change would suggest that it could be used only in “Flex Fuel” vehicles that run on a higher percentage of ethanol. But it’s the same fuel that gas stations have called E15, and that regulators said was approved to use in any vehicle 2001 and newer.

Furthermore, the E15 label change is only for the summer and doesn’t apply to some areas of the country.

The label mandate is going to cause confusion at the gas pumps, said Kathy Bergren, public policy director for the National Corn Growers Association in Washington, D.C.

Most gasoline contains 10% ethanol, a biofuel made from corn.

Corn growers, backers of the 15% blend, say the labeling change hurts E15 sales just as the fuel becomes more commonplace at gas stations in the Upper Midwest.

When it’s labeled as a “Flex Fuel,” many consumers won’t know that the 15% blend is safe to use in their vehicle, Bergren said, since flex fuels normally contain a much higher percentage of ethanol and aren’t intended for use in most cars and trucks.

What’s more, while the label change applies to most of the country, including much of Wisconsin, it doesn’t apply to some metro areas, including Milwaukee County, that come under different EPA fuel standards.

The change, which runs from June 1 through Sept. 15, is based on Environmental Protection Agency rules intended to reduce ozone emissions and smog during the peak summer driving season.

However, E15 backers say the fuel is less harmful to the environment than regular gasoline and that the rules are years out of date. They’ve petitioned Congress to keep E15 labeled as such all year long.

“This long-overdue fix simply holds E15 to the same standard as conventional blends, which means more affordable options for our customers and fewer baseless restrictions on retailers,” Joel Hirschboeck, a Kwik Trip Inc. executive, said in a statement issued through ethanol producer Growth Energy.

Critics of E15, including boaters, say the higher blend of ethanol can damage small engines.

Under federal law, consumers are not supposed to use gasoline with more than 10% ethanol in older vehicles or boat engines. But given that the higher blends are cheaper, fueling mistakes are going to happen, according to E15 critics.

“One of the greatest concerns facing the recreational boating industry today relates to the Renewable Fuel Standard, specifically the introduction of E15 into the marketplace,” the National Marine Manufacturers Association said in a statement.

Even a 10% blend of ethanol in gasoline can harm boat engines because the fuel additive absorbs moisture from humid air. The problems could include fuel line ruptures and expensive repairs not covered by warranty.

“I would say a very high percentage of the engines I work on have quit running or failed because of water in the fuel system,” said Todd Larson, a marine engine mechanics instructor at Indianhead Technical College in Ashland.

“Over the course of a summer, a couple of drops per day, pretty soon there’s a quart of water in the gas tank,” Larson said.

Still, marine engine manufacturers have certified their products to run on a 10% ethanol blend, not 15%, and consumers should know the difference, according to E15 backers.

They say the fuel label changes this summer scare off retailers that don’t want the hassle of switching fuel offerings based on the season.

“Some retailers have questioned whether it’s worth it,” said Bergren of the Corn Growers Association.